Michael Agricola—A “Man of the Dawn”
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN FINLAND
“No other book has had a deeper and more comprehensive influence on Finnish culture, values, and thinking than the Bible.”—“Biblia 350—The Finnish Bible and Culture.”
DO YOU have access to the Bible in your native tongue? There is a good chance you do. After all, the Bible—either whole or in part—is available in over 2,000 languages. And this is no accident. Throughout history, scores of men and women have labored arduously at translating the Bible into the vernacular, even in the face of great obstacles. Michael Agricola was one of them.
Agricola was the scholar who took up the work of translating the Bible into Finnish. His body of literary works helped give rise to Finnish culture as it is known today. No wonder he is called a Man of the Dawn!
Agricola was born in about 1510 in the village of Torsby in southern Finland. His father owned a farm, which explains the surname Agricola, from the Latin word for “farmer.” Growing up in a bilingual region, Agricola likely spoke both Swedish and Finnish. He expanded his linguistic skills while attending a Latin school in the town of Vyborg. Later he moved to Turku, Finland’s administrative center at the time, where he served as secretary to Martti Skytte, Finland’s Catholic bishop.
The Religion and Politics of His Time
During this period of Agricola’s life, Scandinavia was in turmoil. Sweden was struggling to break free from the Kalmar Union, which consisted of the Scandinavian countries. In 1523, Gustav I was crowned king of Sweden. This would have a profound effect on Finland, which was at the time a province under Swedish rule.
The new king was intent on solidifying his power. To achieve his goals, he embraced the Reformation, which was sweeping through northern Europe. By changing the religion of his realm from Catholicism to Lutheranism, he severed ties with the Vatican, undermined the authority of the Catholic bishops, and got his hands on the coffers of the church. To this day the populations of both Sweden and Finland are mostly Lutheran.
A leading goal of Protestantism was to hold church services in common languages instead of Latin. Thus, in 1526 the Christian Greek Scriptures, or the “New Testament,” appeared in Swedish. However, in Finland the winds of Protestantism were considerably weaker. At the time, there was little interest in translating the Bible into Finnish. Why?
“Hard and Irksome” Work
A principal reason was that virtually no literature had been produced in Finnish. Prior to the mid-1500’s, only a few Catholic prayers had been drawn up in the language. Hence, the task of translating the Holy Scriptures into Finnish would require the creation of a written form for many words as well as the coinage of totally new words and phrases. And this would have to be done without the assistance of language textbooks. Yet, Agricola set out to translate the Bible!
In 1536, Skytte, Finland’s Catholic bishop, sent Agricola to Wittenberg, Germany, to further his studies in theology and language. It was in this town that the blows of Luther’s hammer had reportedly echoed 20 years earlier when, according to some accounts, Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of the castle church.
While in Wittenberg, Agricola did more than his homework. He started the monumental task of translating the Bible into Finnish. In 1537, in a letter to the Swedish king, he wrote: “While God is guiding my studies, I will try, as I earlier have initiated, to continue to translate the New Testament into the language of the Finnish people.” Upon his return to Finland, he continued his translation work, serving at the same time as a school principal.
Translating the Bible was as laborious for Agricola as it was for the other early Bible translators. Even Luther had exclaimed: “How hard and irksome it is to force Hebrew writers to speak German”! Granted, Agricola could take advantage of the translations of others, but the major hurdle he had to confront was the Finnish language. In effect, it had hardly ever been set down in writing!
Thus, it was as if Agricola were constructing a house without an architectural plan, building with scanty and scattered materials. How did he do it? Agricola started by picking out words from various Finnish dialects and writing them as they were pronounced. Likely it was Agricola who first coined words in Finnish for “government,” “hypocrite,” “manuscript,” “military force,” “model,” and “scribe.” He made compound words, created derivatives, and borrowed from other languages, particularly Swedish. Among such words are enkeli (angel), historia (history), lamppu (lamp), marttyyri (martyr), and palmu (palm tree).
The Word of God for the Native People
Finally, in 1548, Agricola’s first installment was published, namely Se Wsi Testamenti (The New Testament). Some believe that this translation had been completed five years earlier but that lack of money delayed its publication. Presumably, Agricola financed a major part of the printing himself.
Three years later came Dauidin Psaltari (the Psalms), which Agricola likely translated with the help of colleagues. He also spearheaded some of the translation of the books of Moses and the prophets.
Humbly recognizing his limitations, Agricola candidly wrote: “May no Christian and godly person or any reader of this Holy Book take it unkindly if in this novice translation there happens to be something erring or odd and ugly or put in a new way.” Despite any deficiencies that might be found in Agricola’s translations, his tenacious zeal in making the Bible available to the common people is highly commendable.
Early in 1557, Agricola—who was by then Lutheran and the bishop of Turku—was elected to a delegation that was sent to Moscow to arbitrate in boundary disputes between Sweden and Russia. The mission was successful. However, the rigors of his return trip evidently caused Agricola to fall ill unexpectedly. He died on his way home, at about 47 years of age.
During his relatively short life, Agricola produced only about ten publications in Finnish, with a total of some 2,400 pages. Still, many believe that this “Man of the Dawn” energized the growth of Finnish culture. Since then, the Finnish language and its people have made great strides in the fields of art and sciences.
More important, Michael Agricola helped to usher in another kind of dawn, as he helped make the light of God’s Word clearer to Finnish-speaking people. This is summed up in a memorial poem written for him in Latin after his death: “No ordinary testament did he leave behind him. In place of a testament might be his work—he translated holy books into Finnish—and that work is worthy of great praise.”
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The Finnish Bible
The first complete Finnish Bible, largely based on Michael Agricola’s work, was published in 1642. In time, it became the official Bible of the Finnish Lutheran Church. Over the years the text received several minor revisions but remained virtually unchanged until 1938. The latest revision was released in 1992.
The only other complete Bible in Finnish is the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was released in 1995. Twenty years earlier, in 1975, the Witnesses had already published their translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures. The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures is as faithful as possible to the original text. To date, some 130,000,000 have been printed.
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Michael Agricola and the first Finnish Bible. A postcard from 1910
National Board of Antiquities/Ritva Bäckman
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Agricola’s “New Testament”
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National Board of Antiquities